“In recovery, they have this saying: ‘You’re only as sick as your secrets.’ And I have very few secrets,” Mary Gauthier says. The songwriter isn’t being dramatic. In songs like “I Drink” and “Mercy Now,” she wrote and sang openly about her struggles with alcohol and drug addiction. Yet somehow Gauthier proved herself to be even more transparent in Saved by a Song, a compelling memoir that dove into the nitty-gritty of the songwriting process and her own life story. Released earlier this year, it’s one of the must-read music books of 2021.
Gauthier writes about getting thrown in jail for DUI, learning she was adopted, and embracing her identity as a gay woman. But Saved by a Song is most concerned with what she describes to Rolling Stone as the “magnificence of empathy.” It is a handbook for compassion.
“Music in its highest form, that’s what it is. It literally is empathy,” Gauthier says. “That experience of knowing what it’s like to be someone else for a short moment in time and knowing that you and that someone else have a common bond of humanity that transcends everything that we think separates us: age, race, sexual preference, gender, language, religion, and belief systems.”
Gauthier, who’s had her songs recorded by artists from Boy George to Blake Shelton, was nominated for a Grammy in 2019 for her album Rifles & Rosary Beads, a project that found her helping U.S. veterans channel their emotions into songwriting. During the pandemic, she’s been doing the same with healthcare workers, giving them an outlet for the grief they experience on a daily basis.
We talked to Gauthier about Saved by a Song, the type of writing that terrifies her, and what we can learn from soldiers.
Both songwriting and writing a book can be deeply personal acts. Which is more daunting for you?
Ask anybody who’s written [a book], it’s terrifying. Brandi Carlile and I talked about it and because the main players are all still alive, they’re going to want to have a vote on how you characterize them. And you can’t do that. You have to just write your truth. Writing my own failures and my own struggles and my own recovery and, in many ways, redemption, that doesn’t scare me. I’ve revealed everything in the songs. I’m 31 years sober and I know that when I tell my story, it helps people. But what was terrifying [about the book] is when I brought in other people. I was nervous about some of the adoption stuff. My birth mother probably has no idea that I wrote a book or even read it if she did know. I believe she’s still alive. And my adoptive mother is still alive. I don’t want to cast a shadow on anybody and tell other people’s story out of school. Telling my own story, I’m OK with that. Because, hell, man, that’s what’s interesting.
How about the act of writing a chapter versus a song?
I learned that in book writing, just like in songwriting, getting to simple is the hardest, steepest climb. Once you get to simple it looks like it was easy, but it’s not easy. Finding the stories that really connected everything and made my story drop into the larger framework of why I think songs can be redemptive, that took forever. But it did actually teach me something: that I used music and songs as a form of self-healing. Painters do it. Poets do it. Authors do it. We don’t hear about it that much in song for some reason.
Do you mean we lost some of music as therapy?
And music as redemption. Music as healing. Music as empathy, which is the big thing I got from trying to articulate what the hell I thought was going on with myself, and then with the veterans and now with the doctors and nurses in the Covid ICUs that I’m writing with. It’s the ability for us to get out of our own life and our own stories and get behind the eyes and into the skin of another person. That empathy component is huge when you’re dealing with trauma.
You write at length about collaborating with veterans. What do they have to teach us?
Everyone joined up for different reasons. But what I learned from the soldiers is that they’re not there for political reasons. They’re there to do a job and they’re built for service. And almost every single veteran I’ve worked with is the kind of person that, in the dinner line, would have everybody else go first. I don’t want to say this in a way that is going to make them look bad, but that type of unselfishness is easy to exploit. And I don’t know if it’s something that they would ever say. There’s a goodness in the ones that I’ve worked with and I just want to protect them.
Saved by a Song really breaks down your writing process. You even include early drafts of songs to illustrate how a specific lyric evolved. It was like a private lesson.
One of the most important things that I think the songwriting teacher can do is encourage people to be brave. I encourage my writers to go to the places that are scary because that’s where the good stuff is. Go to the heat, find what really matters to you and write about that. You don’t come to me to learn songwriting if you want to write confections that are devised to attract a mass market and not offend anyone.
As their teacher, what I ask of them is to say what it is they have to say. And that involves dealing with issues of self-worth. Who do I think I am? I mean, Bob Dylan is still alive! What am I doing? Why would it matter what I have to say? And my answer is, you’re being called to do this for reasons that you can never know. And that’s part of the point of the book. You won’t know why you’re doing this. You won’t know why you’re called. It’s a leap of faith.